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The implications of Lenten conversion

Guest Columnist | Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Christian gospel is perceived as paradoxical, almost unrealistic, because it proposes a way of life which is not governed by the virtues so highly prized by our technocratic society: success, efficiency, immediate gratification and control. The Christian gospel is not about success (gaze briefly at a crucifix for verification) it is highly inefficient, frequently delays gratification and encourages us to relinquish our obsession with control to One whom we cannot see.

If unlearning ingrained habits and replacing them with new ways of thinking, feeling and doing is central to our faith “journey,” my purpose is to point out three pitfalls of modern Christian living, which, in my limited experience, can have debilitating effects.

The first unconverted tendency is to think that we “earn our salvation.” This may find its roots in our American work ethic, as though our salvation is a commodity we can, with the right effort, acquire; it is as though we can somehow wow God by our behavior. Unfortunately, Pelagianism is not a new idea. Salvation is not something we can earn or achieve.

It is a grace, which means gift. Our task is simply to receive it that way. I am not suggesting we say, “I accept Jesus as my Savior,” and think our work is done. Obviously, this gift, offered by God in Christ, requires an active response of assimilation to him who gave himself for us, indicated through how we live, behave, and choose.

But it is imperative to remember that the initiative is on God’s side. God has to do most of the work; in fact, in Christ, he has already done so. Our task is to rely upon his grace as we muddle toward his Kingdom for which we pray, and, by our baptism, have also implicated. When we put the emphasis on our strengths and abilities, we are bound to fall into one of two dead ends: Focus on personal accomplishment, like the self-righteous and judgemental Pharisees caricatured in the Gospel, or forget we are bound for failure without His help when we put all the pressure on ourselves.

This leads to one of the most challenging aspects of the spiritual life: discouragement. Discouragement itself creates a vicious cycle of failed attempts and dejection, which can lead to despair. We cannot, and must not, try to earn our salvation. Christ did that once for all. We must learn to humbly rely upon God’s help so we transform through grace into the image of Christ, his Son.

The second pitfall is the tendency to think that religion is a private affair between “me and Jesus.” This ingrained tendency of thought undoubtedly has its remote origins in the rugged individualism which is part of American culture. While religious faith is and should be quite personal, it is never private. That is, our experience of Christian faith is mediated through a community of faith. This is why there is RCIA; it involves the whole parish or university community, not simply Fr. Smith instructing Mr. or Ms. Jackson. That is why very frequently Catholic children’s first penance is experienced as a communal celebration: there are, in a certain sense, no “private” sins. While perhaps unknown to anyone else in the community, my sins nonetheless have an impact on the community –– if I am less of a person because of my sins, the whole community suffers because I am an integral part of that community.

Understanding our Christian faith as a social or even organic phenomenon is crucial. Our experience of Jesus is, in fact, mediated through sacraments –– public and discrete rituals of the Church which bring us into contact with Jesus himself. That meeting place with Jesus is always within community; grace and requires a human or created agent. On a very practical level, we desperately need one another: for support and for a shared sense of what is true and good.

In fact, Christian hope envisions an eternal life with God which is intrinsically social –– it will not be “me gazing at Jesus,” but all of those who love God in communion with one another in Christ. Heaven is innately social. Perhaps an apt metaphor for hell is precisely the opposite: if original sin is fundamentally self-love, in hell we get exactly what we’ve always wanted –– ourselves (and only ourselves) for all eternity: a grim prospect.

The third pitfall is to want to be perfect “right now.” Rooted in our desire for immediacy (we are, after all, the culture of the microwave, the Internet, the iPad, and the drive-thru) and our hatred of ambiguity, we want to be and feel perfect right away. This is an occupation hazard, especially for recent converts and persons returning from a retreat experience. They have seen the mountain-top, and they want to stay there. Unfortunately, life almost never works that way. The first symptoms of spiritual aridity begin to “feel” less religious, less “spiritual.” And after an attempt to become “Mother Teresa” or “John Paul II” overnight, they become disillusioned and discouraged. It is best to look at our spiritual life more as a continuum than “freeze-dried” moments of grace or sin. Spiritual life is about growth, so baby steps are more reliable than blind leaps. St. Thomas Aquinas observed that it is better to limp along the right road than to run headlong down the wrong road. And he was wise.

Realistic expectations about ourselves, and others, are essential as we seek to live in this world of ambiguity, complexity, and imperfection. In fact, we need to redefine spiritual life from being searching for immediate perfection to “learning to be imperfect well.” That is why the image of the Church as a pilgrim is so apposite: we may not yet have arrived, but we are certainly on our way.

These are three significant challenges which face us as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom, begun in Christ, but yet unfulfilled. As we learn to live here as members of his Kingdom, sharing in the truth he has revealed to us about ourselves, rather than accommodating the Gospel to our own limited and fallen imagination, we will, even if unawares, engage in evangelization. I am not talking about the “in your face” techniques of overly argumentative people who are more annoying than effective. By evangelization I mean the calm, steady and stable behavior of a people who know they have found the Truth –– and love him.

Michael Heintz is the director of Divinity in the theology department. He can reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.